The daughters of Sparta were used to tan for long hours under the clear sky of Greece. They would train legs and arms, fight against each other and were used to exercise and become good singers in the art of the muses, the μουσική (Music).
A song used to compare a beautiful woman to a horse with strong hips and majestic hooves
All this is what the historians of Ancient Greece suspect. Conducting a study about the Spartan women, popular Greek city which bloomed between the 7th and 4th century BC, is similar to put a puzzle together, made by different tales and details. The fragments of the mosaic are plenty, like for the rest of the ancient world, and building a comprehensible picture is a complex task.
The historians dealing with this specific period explain how the oral traditions were less frequent here than in other Greek poleis; in Athens, for example, where beyond written evidence there have been gathered archaeological traces, many of them being funeral monuments, which allow to better understand the role of the woman in the Greek society.
Below: some women knead the bread while a musician play the flute and adds the rythm to the production. Tebe, 500 BC, now Louvre)
Of the every day life in Sparta there is not much left, while it is known the deeds of the warriors thanks to the historians of the time, like in the tales of Herodotus. Sarah B. Pomeroy, emeritus professor at the Graduate Center della City University of New York, in his book “Spartan Women” explains:
“Almost all out main sources on Spartan women come from authors who were not Spartan and that lived far beyond the time in which the events occurred. Many of those chroniclers were men, choosing to dedicate their attention to other men. The observations over the women usually represent a minor part of a test focused on another subject”.
Professor Pomeroy and other scholars have tried to give a shape to what exactly the Spartan women could and could not do in their life.
The Spartan women
The women, in the majority of the ancient Greek city-states had basically no rights. They could not vote or go out to do shopping, but not only that. With the arrival of democracy and the progress of society, in Athens the rules became more strict than in other places. The women were confined to their houses, where they would manage the slaves, if they had a wealthy husband, or they would carry on with their life by themselves. Their participation to social life was limited to the dialogue with relatives and family, whilst the only occasions to go out was during religious public feasts.
Below: the Caryatid porch of the Erechtheion in the Acropolis of Athens. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
A different treatment was expected for the hetairas, one of the most popular being Phryne; they could in fact leave their house and manage their properties independently. Their condition of sophisticated courtesans was for this reason reason of envy and slander, yet their freedom was incomparable to any other woman of the other social classes.
Below: representation of an Hetaira with a client
In Sparta the women, despite their life was not comparable to the one of men, could do many different things. Before their marriage, which usually occurred in their 18’s, were used to training like men, taking part in challenges and demonstrations of strength. Plutarch described public shows were the girls would run, fight and throw the javelin, while the legislator Lycurgus (9th-8th century BC) made up a series of laws which guaranteed to the women the duty of preserve an athletic and trained body.
Below: 2 figures showing 2 Spartan women, one with a shield on her hand. The figures dated back to the 6th century BC and have been discovered in Sparta
Then the tendency to have sportive women was most likely in this sense not a concession of right from the men to the women, but instead due to the belief that a physically strong woman could generate vigorous progeny.
The Spartan girls were furthermore educated to music, while their brothers were trained to become the strongest soldiers in the ancient world. Even in youth they were learning to recite the lyric choral poems of Alcmaeon; one of those was mentioning the silvery face of a woman, perhaps indicating the sweat on her forehead.
The gymnastic activities of the women in Sparta, glorified by the Socratics, were often source of critics for their sportive clothes and the promiscuity with the men during the competitions, situation avoided during the Olympic Games, which were reserved to men only. For the non-Spartan women part of the remaining Greece there were the Heraean Games.
During adulthood the women would experience a very active life by partaking in activity of hunting, running competitions or riding in horse races
The Spartan women were more free not only for the willingness of their men to have them strong and vigorous, but also as a cause of the never ending need of work in their society: the Helots, the slaves from Laconia and Messenia who would work for the noble class were the ones performing all those duties that in other cities were reserved to the women.
Below: 2 female figures in Sparta. Archaeological Museum of Sparta, picture by Matteo Rubboli
The Spartan women did not have to deal with children all along, and this was giving them spare time for their activities life gym and music.
Ellen Millender, classicist from the Reed College, in a chapter dedicated to the Spartan women in her volume “A Companion to Sparta“, supports that those activities were not a right granted for sex equality, but rather for a different conception of social life compared to the other poleis. Their women were strong in order to give birth to strong men, but they were also educated in order to keep their values high, those values in which the Spartan society was founded, like marriage and maternity.
Below: ancient theatre of Sparta, one of the few archaeological proofs which got all the way to the modern times. Picture by Matteo Rubboli
In that very volume, Millender affirmed:
“(…)this training instilled in Spartan girls the polis’ system of values through the medium of the poet’s verses and thus prepares them to adapt to those gender roles, behaviours, and responsibilities that sustained Sparta’s body politic”.
The Spartan girl, compared to their Athenians equals, were eventually more free, probably not for moral reasons but because this way, the Spartan family would have appeared more solid, as well as the political and military strength of Sparta would have overcome the one of the other Greek cities. Who knows whether this specific aspect about the freedom of their women has somewhat contributed, in 404 BC, to the Athenians surrender in the Peloponnesian war.